The uproar greeting Amy Chua's allegedly tongue-in-cheek tales of demeaning and belittling behavior toward her daughters -- and her subsequent hasty backtracking -- has drowned out an important theme: the parenting principles that Chua gets right. These principles, which flow from but aren't unique to Asian culture, help explain why Asian-American kids are doing so well in our schools.
Subtract Chua's outrageous stories of threatening to take away lunch and dinner if her daughter doesn't keep practicing the piano -- aka conditional love -- and a dose of healthy parenting remains: the Tiger Mother hits the psychological nail on the head when she criticizes well-intentioned parents who misguidedly praise their children for simply being alive.
The self-esteem movement rightly promoted the idea that feeling loved and valued is a basic human need. Affection along with praise and other positive feedback motivates kids to learn far more than the old "spare the rod and spoil the child" idea. But some parents and schools distorted self-esteem theories into rampant child-praising for doing nothing in particular. My 30-year-old son tells me he sees entitled "millenials" who think they deserve good jobs without having worked for the required skills
Chua also correctly points out that achievement solidifies self-esteem. Kids gain feelings of self-worth and even joy through extreme effort that promotes high-level skills. Her emphasis on high expectations is likewise on target. William Jeynes, a California State University, Long Beach psychologist, analyzed dozens of studies and found that the single most important factor affecting children's academic achievement is their parents' expectations.
Having said that , it's hard to not condemn Chua's stories of cruel control. Of course,as she madly backpedals, Chua protests that she wrote a memoir, not a parenting manual. Fair enough. But given her high six-figure advance and stellar academic credentials, it's disappointing that she never checked out the last 30 years of research into what motivates kids to learn and excel. Research tells us that children are most likely to find their passions, stick with them and excel when their parents fan the flames of their interests and passions. So giving kids choices rather than forcing them into an activity as she apparently did, is a good thing.
That doesn't mean permissiveness: at the same time, you lay down reasonable but firm rules. It's all about staying involved, but figuring out who the child is (rather than who you'd like her to be) and supporting her autonomy -- which Chua didn't even begin to get until her youngest daughter said, "I hate you," mid-way through the book. But here's a bigger problem with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, one we haven't heard mentioned: parents who want their kids to reach their full potential may panic as they read about the alleged glorious results of Chua's harsh coercion. "OMG, maybe I should have forced Zach to play piano!" you might think. "Why didn't I make Courtney take up lacrosse?" But perhaps your kids' interests -- and ultimately their excellence -- lay elsewhere. In other words, this book will likely rouse your anxiety. With all the pressures parents face today, do we really need more angst? We think not.
Maybe you like to read horror stories, but if not, better to check out some of the books about how to raise a high-achieving kid while preserving a great relationship with her. That's the path we guide you along in our book Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child. This advice is less sensational and provocative than the Tiger Mother's. But anyone can follow it, and raise a child who not only excels but will take pleasures in doing what she loves.